Perfection vs Productivity

John Sonmez recently did a post answering some questions. One of the questions was from someone starting out blogging. The person mentioned that they were taking hours and hours editing and re-writing their blog post. They asked Mr. Sonmez how much time he spends editing.

This struck a note with me, because this concept is something I’ve struggled with in many ways in my adult life.

Are you a perfectionist?
I think I have some level of OCD, in that – I strongly prefer excellence. I like things to be done the proper way unless there is a compelling reason not to. This includes most things, but it particularly applies to things I care about, like hobbies, and my career.

Does that make me a perfectionist? I don’t know, I guess it depends on your definition. However, I definitely prefer properness, excellence, and perfection – to non-perfection.

Why perfection can be bad:
Perfection can be bad, because striving to be perfect will stop you from being productive.

“Done is better than perfect” –K. Scott Allen

and it’s also been said many times, and in many ways. What does this mean? It means that when you endeavor to finish a task, the more time you spend on perfection – the longer it takes you do to that task. On top of that, perfection is almost never achievable, so there is a point where you might be “wasting” time on perfection.

For many/most things, it’s better to be imperfect – and complete the task – than it is to be not-done, but working towards perfection. A finished project now is worth more than an almost-completed project which you are trying to make perfect.

Perfection represents 1 possible state, and imperfection represents the other infinite states!

Scott Allen, I believe, was mostly talking about software development. There is a point when you are writing software, where it is “good” software. Many times, it’s ideal to “ship it”, rather than to keep working on it, trying to be perfect.

So, we should lower our standards?
Well, not exactly. I, and I don’t think anyone else who talks about this, is suggesting you go to the other extreme. It’s not: perfect… or complete junk. There is a wide spectrum in between. In fact, you might look at the effort for any given task like this:


What I’m saying is that instead of “Perfection” being your only acceptable quality level, for many things – you can be imperfect, and it’s still OK. Maybe you can still be professional, but maybe not perfect all the time.

How this applies to me – YouTube:
Although I’ve had this conflict with many things in my life, it was most-recently brought to the surface when I started doing YouTube videos. In general, creating video content can be time-consuming. However, as I was editing, I found all sorts of “mistakes”. Not mistakes in the information, but “umms”, “uhhs”, hesitations, stammering, etc. It was completely unacceptable to me.

But wait, what am I to do? I already spent 2 hours recording, and another hour of editing – am I to start from scratch and re-record it? I did that once. Do you know what I found? I found my second attempt was about the same! It turns out that I’m NOT a flawless speaker.

Here’s where the decision comes in. Do I publish imperfect, but professional, useful and helpful videos. Or, do I not publish until I can be perfect?

For me, I made the choice to publish imperfect videos. Presumably, and hopefully, I’ll get better over time. In the meantime, I think that the value of what I publish, is “worth” the cost of it being imperfect. Well, so long as it’s still professional and reasonable – which I think my videos are.

How this applies to me – Music:
A couple of years ago my brother and I got together to record a Christmas album of music. Both he and I have played several instruments over several decades, and we both have the ability to record, so we tackled it.

In talking with him, this issue came up yet again. As you might imagine, you can write, record, re-record, edit, re-edit… then delete and re-record… forever. it’s particularly difficult  with music because when is music “perfectly right”? It never is; It’s subjective. It’s a fluid concept that is different for every listener, and even to the same listener, at two different times of the day!

So, how do you STOP working on a song… STOP pursuing perfection, and just call it done? Well, how do you do that – and still end up satisfied with the work that you’ve done?

You have to choose to be productive, or you will stay in that prison of perfection, not getting anything done. This is kind of a paradox. You are pursuing perfection because you want to be done with that task – yet the pursuit of that perfection, is the thing that is stopping you. Pursuing perfection could drag on for years and even decades!

To me, a person needs to decide. This needs to be a conscious choice. For me, it’s not good for my sanity to live in the prison of perfection, because it’s extremely rare that you find the way out. Perfection is really just one finite state, and there are infinite imperfect states. Instead, you end up in never-ending torture of that task, song, program, project, whatever… never being complete. I find that to be so undesirable, that I am willing to accept less-than-perfect.

How this might apply to you:
Not only do I come to this conclusion for myself, I feel the same way for other people too. I know more than one person who doesn’t blog because they will only put out a perfect blog post. They will spend days on it, make sure it’s perfect… re-edit it… re-write a section, etc. If that’s what it really took, I wouldn’t publish anything either!

Instead, consider doing a really great job, being professional – but choosing to be productive, over being perfect.

Bottom line:
So I propose to you, dear reader, that if perfection is stopping you from being productive – consider lowering your standards, just a tiny notch. Still keep it professional, still keep it high quality – but don’t let perfection stop you from being productive. Choose to finish things, instead!

Posted in General, Organization will set you free, Professional Development, Uncategorized
5 comments on “Perfection vs Productivity
  1. John Sonmez says:

    Great post and thanks for the mention.
    I really like that picture you showed with horrible, amateur and professional. Illustrates the concept perfectly.


  2. PJ Seder says:

    Like one of our managers used to tell us:

    – “A bad plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow”

    It seems so counter-intuitive, but it’s so true!


  3. […] Half-done is the same as not-done. Done is better than perfect. (I have my own strong opinions about this too) […]


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